Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has a lot riding on it. The final installment of the wildly popular series, it’s the story of the boy hero’s final showdown with the ultimate villain. Voldemort has severed pieces of his soul and placed them in Horcruxes, which must be found and destroyed in order for his defeat to be final. Harry, Ron, and Hermione, on the run after the Death Eaters take over the government, try to accomplish this task but also learn about the Deathly Hallows, a trio of fabled objects currently sought by Voldemort that give their owner power over death.
But wait! We’re not quite to the final standoff yet. As has been well advertised, this movie is only Part 1 of the Deathly Hallows cinema experience, and to effect the split, the screenwriters built this first half around the discovery of what the Deathly Hallows are. The main set pieces are Harry’s flight from the Dursleys’ (which occurs almost immediately), the trio’s attempt to steal a Horcrux from the poisonous Dolores Umbridge at the Ministry of Magic (now controlled by Death Eaters), and the teens’ hair-raising imprisonment at and escape from Malfoy Manor.
Implications of mass imprisonment, torture, and even genocide hang over the whole movie and affect characters both beloved and ancillary, and in stark contrast to even the sixth movie, there is little humor to be found beyond the gallows variety. Rather than trying to achieve the same balance of light and dark found in previous installments, director David Yates embraces the almost unrelentingly ominous atmosphere with expert cinematography. Action sequences are rapid-fire and brutal, non-action sequences subdued. City scenes in the Muggle world are washed out and overexposed, while the wizarding world is portrayed either in eerie, lonely swathes of countryside (the Weasleys’ and Lovegoods’ isolated households) or sterile manmade environments like the Ministry or the Malfoys’ home. The Ministry and its publications and pronouncements recall the aesthetics of Nazi propaganda, a visual and rhetorical parallel that achieves considerable impact. The storybook tale of the Deathly Hallows itself is rendered with a kind of shadow-puppet-esque animation that is beautiful, eerie, and seamless.
The acting just keeps getting better and better in these films, and Deathly Hallows boasts some shining performances. Daniel Radcliffe shows off his range in the scene featuring the Harry-disguised decoys with dead-on mimicry that leaves no doubt as to which character he’s playing at a given moment. Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy memorably exudes internal conflict in a short scene of the death of a Hogwarts professor. Similarly, Alan Rickman’s appearances as Snape are brief but tantalizing, his actions suggesting bad-guy status but his controlled facial reactions introducing a measure of uncertainty to that conclusion. Therefore it’s a relief that Radcliffe, along with Emma Watson (Hermione) and Rupert Grint (Ron) are able to carry the show. Emma Watson as Hermione is both steely and vulnerable, particularly in an early tone-setter of a moment where she wipes her parents’ memories of her existence (an effective, organic added scene). Rupert Grint as Ron ably balances the character’s frustration, self-doubt, and inherent impulses toward both heroics and comic relief.
Tweaks to the plot are sometimes missed opportunities, sometimes enhancements of Rowling’s themes. One of the essential ideas of the book and indeed the series is that Harry is defined by his compassion and respect for those who are different or dangerous, from kindness toward house elves to mercy toward enemies. This plays a significant role in the book’s conclusion, but its introduction early on as the means by which Harry’s pursuers identify him amidst a cadre of duplicates is shuffled aside. The radio updates Ron listens to obsessively, waiting for and dreading any news of family, are a savvy addition to the movie, supporting both mood and exposition from the background without taking up to much space. The challenges of creating a movie adaptation based on detailed books that also used such long-term plotting are also apparent here: in simplifying the plot over the last six movies, enough details have been lost that the setups that propel the characters from one dicey scenario to the next no longer bear close examination.
The movie also struggles with some pacing problems — mostly due to the amount of time the kids spend wandering in the woods and the heft of exposition required by not one but two complicated McGuffins (i.e., Horcruxes and Deathly Hallows) — that the book was able to overcome with a high-octane second half, a luxury this movie does not have. Still, the more spacious plotting allows for some nice quiet moments of reflection, such as Harry wandering through an empty Number 4, Privet Drive, and saying goodbye to the cupboard where it all began, a cupboard that is now ridiculously small for him. With all the blockbuster explosion-a-minute youth fantasies crowding the cinemas, it’s nice to see a story that will allow viewers to breathe a little and consider the context before scaring them out of their seats with a snake attack. Another advantage? With all the exposition taken care of, the way is now clear for a final movie with no such pacing hiccups. Book familiarity notwithstanding, this film’s cliffhanger ending ensures that day can’t come soon enough.